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Workshop Invitation – The role of scientists in public debate and advocacy

Monday, 6th February 2017

9am – 5pm

University of Melbourne

A one-day workshop for early-mid career scientists in conservation and environmental research areas, who are interested in public engagement for practical and/or philosophical reasons.

RSVP to Fiona Fidler (fidlerfm@unimelb.edu.au)

What are the bounds of being an ‘objective’ scientist, and how will I know if I overstep them? Is advocacy outside the scope of being a scientist? What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ model of engagement? Do we simply need more knowledge brokers and NGOs—is it unreasonable to expect scientists to be involved in public debate, as well as their day job? How is objectivity maintained in science, if scientists are people with values? 

We’re here to help with these questions! Dr Kristian Camilleri (History and Philosophy of Science, HPS); Associate Professor Fiona Fidler (BioScience|HPS); Dr Darrin Durant (HPS); The HPS Postgraduate Society; Dr Jenny Martin (BioScience); Dr Georgia Garrard (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science); Associate Professor Sarah Bekessy (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science). We’ll also have a panel of media experts to take questions on the day.

Public engagement is something strongly encouraged in our University, and there are many existing resources for effective science communication. However, most focus on expert information provision, where a scientist has some new knowledge that they wish to communicate to the public. Engagement advice typically focuses on news-style science communication; it less often deals with other forms of engagement, such as entering public debates or speaking out for or against new policy proposals. In those cases, the advice scientists receive often amounts to ‘separate the facts from your own personal values’, and ‘don’t speak outside your direct domain of expertise’. In practice, most scientists don’t know how to interpret that advice, or implicitly understand that it is impossible to follow. Underdeveloped guidelines, sometimes coupled with warnings from colleagues who have bad prior experiences, can be enough for scientists to withdraw from public engagement.

In this workshop we have two main goals. First, we want to find out from scientists,
in their own words, what the dilemmas they encounter when contemplating engagement. Do scientists worry about their scientific credibility in the eyes of their peers, or the public,or both if they take a position in public debate on policy issues? Is it beyond the scope of their role of scientist to do this? These are thorny issues that we’ll tackle in a focus group style discussion (structured elicitation exercise) in the first session of workshop.

Second, we aim connect scientists with relevant expertise in philosophy and sociology of science, to help unpack some of the deeper conceptual issues underlying those dilemmas. We will explore questions like: How is objectivity maintained in science, if nscientists are people with values? What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ or ‘information provision only’ model of engagement? After exploring these questions in the workshop, we will also discuss how to set up longer term peer-to-peer networks and online resources that take can take our workshop discussions to a broader audience.

The workshop agenda can be found here.

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